County council discusses code on special events

Following up on an inquiry by Councilman George Cole at a May meeting of the Sussex County Council, the council this week discussed the definition of “Special Events” within the Sussex County Code.

Cole was specifically asking about Hudson Fields, an 18-acre parcel zoned AR-1 and located near Milton, where a number of concerts and other events have been scheduled this year, organized by Highway One. (At the June 6 council meeting, businessman Alex Pires of Highway One and Christian Hudson of Hudson Fields were in attendance, but did not speak.)

According to Chapter 115 of the Sussex County Code, “Special events such as circuses or carnivals grounds, amusement parks or midways, festivals, concerts, races/walks or any other special event or mass gathering being held outdoors or within a temporary structure or at a site and for a purpose different from the designated use and usual occupancy of the premises and located on unincorporated lands within Sussex County, permanently, or for a temporary time period exceeding three days.

“Special events as defined herein, with a duration not exceeding three days, are not subject to the conditional use process. Upon receipt of an application, the Director or his/her designee may grant approval of a special event not exceeding three days. All special events, regardless of duration, shall be subject to the requirements of the Sussex County Special Event Policy.”

County Administrator Todd Lawson noted that the section was amended on an unanimous vote in 2013, specifically referencing public safety and mass gathering policy for special events.

“Several events over the years have utilized this section of the code over the years, including Punkin Chunkin, car shows, children’s festivals, car shows, et cetera,” said Lawson. “This language was intended to permit temporary events with a short duration, of which requiring a conditional-use approval for that event seemed overly burdensome.”

Lawson said that, if council were to direct staff to review the ordinance for possible amendments, they could include the event timing. He noted the event clock may start the moment the property begins to prepare for the event and ends once it is returned to its former state.

“We need to clearly understand when the event clock starts and stops. Historically, the Planning & Zoning Department counted the setup and cleanup process as part of the days of the events.”

Event duration is something else council may want to consider reviewing, said Lawson, noting that the current code states it may run for three days. He added that the code is also “silent” as to the maximum number of events that can be held on the same property within a calendar year.

“Historically, the Planning & Zoning Department only allowed three events of the same kind per calendar year on the same parcel,” he said, adding that the council may want to review the types of events as well.

Cole asked how the County is currently operating in regards to special events.

“Historically, requests would come in or information was given to the Planning & Zoning Department — for instance, a neighbor would call and ask, ‘What’s going on in my neighboring field?’ and the director would investigate,” said Lawson.

Cole asked what the County would be doing going forward.

“I would say that takes direction from you all,” said Assistant County Attorney Vince Robertson, “because the ordinance is not all that well drafted… There’s not a lot of clarity.”

Robertson suggested, if the council wanted to make changes, that they perhaps review the types of requests they’ve been receiving.

“But I do think it’s important to have some flexibility in the code, because we don’t want to make people like the American Legion or a carnival or charity … have to come in and get a conditional use. There’s got to be some flexibility to allow these things in Sussex County, because, frankly, they’re good for the county.”

Cole continued to ask how staff interprets the current policy.

Planning & Zoning Director Janelle Cornwell said a lot of the requests have been for one-day events, and for those that are approved, organizers are sent letters stating that the event may last three days — setup and cleanup included.

If the three-day limit is ignored, Robertson said, there are penalties in the code, and enforcement would to go through the code-enforcement constable and court system.

Councilman Rob Arlett asked why exactly the policy was being reviewed.

“The reality is this has been going on. How many people have been concerned with respect to previous events that have been going on, as it relates to these special events? I don’t know what that answer is. Are we barking up a tree that’s not necessary? Has there been a real outpouring of concern from the community? Have there been any safety issues? Have there been any health issues? Why are we here today?”

“We’re here today to be proactive,” said Cole. “There are many instances where we sit back and watch something develop…”

Cole said he believes the County needs to figure out if it’s appropriate, and after how many events the event in question is no longer “special.”

Councilman Sam Wilson compared Hudson Fields to the Freeman Stage at Bayside, to which the County grants money yearly. Robertson clarified that events at Freeman Stage are not considered a “special event,” as the facility was approved as part of the (Americana) Bayside application under MR-RPC (Medium-Density Residential—Residential Planned Community) zoning.

Councilman I.G. Burton said he believes events come in different shapes and sizes, in different areas of the county.

“I think we have to encourage them, looking at what they are,” he said. “A lacrosse tournament ought to be a little different than a concert. We have to find a way, if there’s a problem with this, not to discourage it but to encourage it through information.”

He added that he believes teardown and setup should be reviewed.

Arlett said he wasn’t sure a change to the code is necessary and said he has yet to hear from the constituents.

“I want to hear from the people. I represent the people, so that’s who I’d like to hear from. I’m not here being a dictator, thinking what I think is the best for all people, without their input. That’s plain and simple,” he said. “We want to attract more and not detract others.”

He asked whether an application for a special event had ever been denied. Cornwell said she was not aware of one and would have to review the records. Robertson noted that some applicants were told they would have to apply for a conditional use.

“So where we are is we’re pretty flexible and you can pretty much do whatever you want,” said Council President Michael Vincent. “Is that what I’m hearing?”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Robertson.

Vincent said that going “way back” to the inception of the ordinance, it was to allow nonprofits to host fundraising events without having to apply for a conditional use.

“I’m thinking this this certainly needs to be tweaked,” he said.

Lawson said County staff would work up an outline of a draft ordinance, addressing some of the concerns the council had, to be reviewed at a later date.